"What can I get you girls?" It's one of the first things my friends and I always hear when we're ordering something in a restaurant or bar. Men of all demographics use the phrase, as do a lot of women. It's become so common that I don't even flinch at it anymore, even if it's something I don't particularly love hearing. If you really think about it, though, addressing a grown-ass woman as a girl is pretty problematic, and it's about time we considered nixing the word from our vocabulary entirely.
Let's get technical for a second and talk about the definition of "girl." According to Dictionary.com, "girl" means "a female child, from birth to full growth," or "a young, immature woman." That basically rules out most women reading this, since we're adults. Regardless, our society loves tossing around the term "girl," no matter how old the women they're referring to are. We hear it in all kinds of contexts — in songs on the radio, from friends and family, and even at work from our superiors. Most of the time, the term is used endearingly, but that doesn't make it any better. It harbors a larger meaning which reflects just how much our society fails to respect women.
Here are five problems with calling women girls.
1. It Makes Women Into Children
A girl is a person under the age of 18 who still lives with their parents. So when you use that term in reference to a successful woman who has worked hard to get where she is today, you're ignoring her accomplishments and diminishing her maturity. It also implies that she needs to be looked after or taken care of, like a silly tween who needs guidance from her camp counselor.
2. It Has Creepy Sexual Undertones
When a woman is catcalled on the street by a random guy, the leers tend to be kicked off with some variation of "Hey, girl!" In run-of-the-mill romantic comedies, the protagonist always talks about "getting the girl." Similarly, in the famous (and hilariously accurate) Mad TV skit "Can I Have Your Number," Darrell tries to coax Yvonne into giving him her number by insisting, "Don't be insecure, girl. Work that ponytail!" In other words, men use the term "girl" when they're crudely hitting on women or objectifying them — all while infantilizing them. It also sexualizes actual girls.
3. It Perpetuates Our Unhealthy Obsession With Youth In Women
Everywhere you turn, women are constantly being sold products they can drink or slather on their faces to make them look younger. Our society is obsessed with maintaining women's youth, and men are constantly chasing after younger women — so much so that 37-year-old Maggie Gyllenhaal was once deemed "too old" to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man in a Hollywood movie. This is a theme we've become so used to that we no longer bat our eyes at it. As a result, women put tremendous expectations on themselves to remain youthful, even though aging women are beautiful and wise.
4. There Is No Male Equivalent
Some might try to argue that we address men as "guys" all the time, but that's not the equivalent to women being called girls. Merriam-Webster defines guy as "man, fellow." There's nothing age-specific about it, so when the word is used on men, it doesn't bear the same patronizing, infantilizing undertones. For women, though, there is no term out there that can serve as a stand-in for "guy." We're simply referred to as girls or women, while men are called boys, then guys, then men.
After high school graduation, you likely won't hear your brother and his friends being called "boys" by anyone other than your mother. Have you ever heard your male co-workers called "boys" in an important meeting by their boss, for instance? Doubt it. They're called guys or men, neither of which carry a loaded history of sexism.
5. It Prevents Us From Treating Each Other As Equals
Language isn't a petty thing. It plays a significant role in how we see the world, how we treat one another, and how we make sense of ourselves. When a group of adult women are waved off as a bunch of girls, we feel like we're being talked down to in a condescending way. This may sound like something minute, but when it's done over and over again it takes us further away from ever feeling like we're considered as worthy and adult as men.